Just how much will early voting cost?

New estimate for in-person voting ahead of November election is higher than earlier cost projection. State cautions that the true cost is unknown
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
File photo: Voting in New Jersey

A new estimate by county officials working with the state Division of Elections puts the likely cost of New Jersey’s first statewide early voting this fall at about $83 million and counting, while the state has budgeted just half that amount so far.

A spokeswoman for the Division of Elections cautioned that the amount is still only an estimate that has not been embraced by the division. She noted other estimates are lower and added the true cost of opening polling places in each county for nine days before the Nov. 2 Election Day remains unknown.

“All this is speculation,” said Alicia D’Alessandro. “In the next few months, we’ll know what it’s going to cost.”

How much of the actual cost the state will cover is another question.

The state has committed to spending $42 million to pay for electronic poll books and machines for early voting for every county, D’Alessandro said.

John Donnadio, Executive Director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said the state may pick up more of the tab and if it doesn’t, the counties are prepared to file a case with the state body created to ensure that the state pays for mandates it imposes on local and county governments.

“We had a very productive meeting with the administration yesterday as well as several meetings with legislative leadership over the past few weeks,” Donnadio said on Thursday. “All of the above are committed to making sure early voting runs smoothly, so I’m cautiously optimistic that the budget will ultimately include sufficient funding.”

Half the states allow early voting by machine

Two months ago, Gov. Phil Murphy made New Jersey the 25th state to require access to early, in-person voting by machine just days after the Legislature approved the bill with bipartisan support. Currently, counties offer early voting using paper vote-by-mail ballots according to schedules they specify. Early voting became legal too late to be implemented for next month’s  primary election but it must be in place this fall.

READ: Murphy ‘confident’ counties will make early voting work in November

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Under the law, each county will open between three and 10 polling places, depending on the number of registered voters, for machine voting for nine days before the general election, ending on the Sunday before Election Day. This year, that would be from Saturday, Oct. 23 through Sunday, Oct. 31.

The NJ Early Voting Working Committee, created by the Division of Elections and comprised of county election officials, earlier this week completed a detailed accounting of all the estimated costs to implement the state’s new early voting law. The committee’s estimated total is about $6 million higher than a previous estimate by the Association of Counties. And the committee’s $82.7 million estimate could rise higher because it does not include the cost of such items as forms (including forms for people with disabilities, name-change forms, affirmation-of-address forms and provisional ballot envelopes) for voting sites. It also provides only partial estimates for the cost of security and other items.

How the costs add up

By far the most expensive item is equipment. More than 15,000 electronic poll books are needed along with chargers, styluses and ballot printers. Also needed: more than 2,000 voting machines, each able to provide a paper trail. The estimated cost for all of that is $52.6 million. Because people will be coming from all over a county to vote in a few locations, ballots will need to be printed for every municipality — and in some cases voting district, in places where local council members are elected by district rather than townwide. Current machines are programmed for the specific town and district where people are voting and delivered to the local polling place. Each county is buying its own equipment and is to seek reimbursement from the state.

Another $11.5 million is needed to train and pay more than 5,000 poll workers to staff 168 early voting centers in the nine days leading up to Election Day.

Other significant cost estimates include $5.9 million for increased storage space for the new machines; $5.6 million to rent, clean and secure the early voting centers and $1.5 million for network connectivity among the sites and the Statewide Voter Registration System.

For the Legislature’s debate on the bill earlier this year, a fiscal analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimated that it would cost the state a minimum of $28 million but could range to $48 million or more to cover the costs of early voting; the bill only included a $2 million appropriation. Still, the bill’s sponsors said there would be enough money to cover the costs and Gov. Phil Murphy has committed $42 million.

Some advocates called the prior estimate of $77 million from the Association of Counties high. Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice said an analysis done in consultation with the League of Women Voters put the total cost at between $55 million and $60 million and urged lawmakers to fund it.

“Early voting is expensive … our election infrastructure for the most part in the state is stuck in about two decades ago,” Patel told a forum Thursday on the cost of early voting and redistricting held by the For the Many NJ coalition.

“Early voting is going to cost a lot, whether it’s $40 million or $80 million, but most of these expenses are one-time things,” D’Alessandro said.

The NJ Early Voting Working Committee’s estimate also includes continuing annual expenses after the first year’s implementation, putting that cost at $21.2 million, with roughly half of that to pay poll workers.

Counties could file complaint

Should the state decide not to fully fund early voting, the counties could file a complaint with the state Council on Local Mandates seeking to have the law invalidated. Eighteen months ago, that body agreed with the counties’ argument that two laws that in 2018 and 2019 expanded the number of people to whom clerks must automatically send mail-in ballots constituted “unfunded mandates” because they required the counties to spend $2.8 million in three elections — and would continue to spend $1.9 million a year on future elections — without state reimbursement. Rather than allow the laws to be invalidated, the state appropriated money to cover those ballot costs.

READ: Changes in vote-by-mail ruled null and void, unfunded mandates

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Donnadio said that whatever the final cost of early voting turns out to be, he would like to see the state cover it to avert going before the council.

“I’m not sure what that number will be yet but hope to avoid filing a complaint with the Council on Local Mandates,” Donnadio said. “The costs are clear and substantial and corroborated by the Division of Elections.”

Marcia Marley of BlueWave NJ said there is money available this year to pay for early voting as well as for updating all the old voting machines that do not have a voter-verified paper trail and to cover the costs of redrawing state legislative and congressional district boundaries, but keeping these current may be harder to address.

“Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, New Jersey is flush with funds in 2021, and we need to push legislators to use these funds for redistricting and early voting and updating our antiquated equipment,” she told the For the Many forum. “Also, we need to think about permanent funding for democracy.”